On average, I spend more than forty hours a week inside the Mercury FM building. Now, that’s not a complaint. Plenty of people work much longer days than I do, doing a shitty job that they hate. I do what I like to do, and I get paid for it, which makes me fortunate. My co-workers like to joke and laugh as much as I do. I can dress for work however I like; there are no suits that strangle me in my wardrobe. Plus, the surrounding eateries and cafés are some of the best in Melbourne. That said, I’m not so keen on turning up to work on a Sunday.
“Daniella,” I say, walking into the office I share with my co-host.
She growls. “I hate that name.”
I grin. “I know.”
She’s sitting at her desk, her long light brown hair hanging over her face like a curtain. After sweeping it back and pulling it into a ponytail, she watches me take a seat at my desk.
“I guess I should just be grateful you’re here, huh?” she asks.
I put my feet up on the desk. “Said I would be, didn’t I?”
“Yes, but I know how precious your weekends are to you.”
“They are precious. You should enjoy one sometime.”
“I would if I had something to do,” she says sulkily.
Dan’s always hinting she wants to go out with me on the weekend, and if her feelings for me were just platonic that would be okay, but they aren’t, and I’m not interested. Dan’s all right. She’s attractive, even if she dresses like a guy half the time and prefers to be called Dan over Dani or Daniella. The problem is that we work together. Sleeping together would ruin our relationship as co-hosts, especially since I don’t plan on ever breaking my no-relationship rule. Not unless Kristy turns back time and picks me over Logan. Something that’s never going to happen.
My co-host gives me a cross look. “Unfortunately, I’m too busy working on our show to enjoy days off.”
Dan is here more often than I am, chasing leads, it’s true. I do my share, but she does her share plus more. She doesn’t understand work-life balance.
“So why am I here, then? If you’re so busy doing everything for both of us.”
Her anger vanishes, and she makes a big show of wheeling her chair out from behind her desk and moving closer to me. “Eddie and Kane are quitting the drive-time spot at the end of July.”
My feet fall off the desk, and I sit forward in my chair. “No fucking way.”
“Way, Granger. And guess which duo they’re considering asking to step in?”
“It won’t be us, Dan. We’re rating well, but we’re not that big yet. They might bring someone else in. Or lure Rogers and Bexley out of retirement.”
She shakes her head. “I overheard them discussing it. They want us, Granger, but…”
“They’re not entirely sure we have what it takes to keep a prime-time audience satisfied.”
I growl. “Of course, we have what it takes.”
Dan nods in agreement. “I know, but we need to prove it to them.”
I can see she has a plan. She’s got that slightly-devious expression she wears when she’s been plotting.
“We need an interview, a big one that will help us hit it out of the ballpark and impress management. It needs to be all over the news, the radio, YouTube, everywhere.”
“I’m glad you agree because I was reading some of the current news headlines from here and overseas, and I came across something interesting.”
Her excitement is contagious, and I feel my heart race and my adrenaline spike like it always does when I know there’s a story I can sink my teeth into.
“What have you found?”
She reaches onto her desk, pulls off a piece of paper she printed out and passes it to me. “There are a few headlines worth following up on, but I think you’ll easily guess which one has me the most excited.”
I scan the list, looking for the one she’s talking about, my gaze snagging on a headline from a UK gossip mag.
“Jessica Skyler replaced by Karen Malua on Get it Right,” I read aloud.
“Don’t you know Jessica?”
I pass the print-out back to her. “She’s a friend of a friend.”
She’s also my neighbour, currently, and an untouchable ice princess who appears to have everyone but me wrapped around her little finger. At least, she’d seemed untouchable and icy until she started talking about the death of her parents and how much Kristy means to her.
“Can you suss it out,” Dan asks. “Check if there’s a story there? She was supposed to be there on a six-month contract, but she came back three months early. There must be a reason for that, Granger. A story. Maybe even a juicy one.”
There could well be a juicy story there, and I want to be excited about it, but the adrenaline kick and racing heart have faded, and I have this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Anything that will hurt Jess will hurt Kristy and Logan – the last people in the world I want to hurt.
At the same time, if there is a story surrounding Jess’ early departure from the UK, it will come out eventually. It’s better that I uncover the story and warn my friends than see them blindsided, right?
And if I prove that I’m right about Jess not being as sweet and innocent as everyone tries to make out to be, well, that wouldn’t be a bad thing. No matter how sincere Jess seemed about Kristy’s importance in her life, I can’t believe I’m off base with my assessment of her character. This headline is the perfect opportunity to figure out whether Jess is the threat to Kristy I’ve always thought she is.
Even better, digging around shouldn’t be as difficult now that Jess and I are trying to get along. She’ll want to answer my questions because we agreed to be ‘friendly’ and ‘civil’. And if the headline means nothing, then I’ll accept that maybe Jess is genuine about her affection for her friend. But if she duped me…
“I’ll look into it,” I say, knowing I can start by asking a few questions at dinner tonight. “In case there’s nothing much to it, though, we should keep looking into the other headlines, too.”
Dan nods. “Never put all your eggs in the one basket, but I’ve got a feeling about this one.”
Kristy and Logan won’t be happy I’m digging up dirt on their friend, but whatever I find, they’ll thank me for revealing any truths I discover.
It’s Jess who answers the door when I knock on it. Even in skinny jeans and an aqua coloured knit jumper, she looks hot as hell. Her wavy long blonde hair flows down past her shoulders, and the jumper makes her eyes appear aqua instead of green. I’d seen pictures of the supermodel before we met, but she’s even more beautiful in person.
Out of my league. That was the first thought I had when Kristy introduced us. Even if I was no longer the skinny geek of a kid who endured endless bullying back in high school, it had been obvious to me that Jessica Skyler was in a class of her own. A fact which was made more evident when introduced to the male model she was engaged to.
The second thought I had after meeting Jess was that she was nearly the perfect likeness to a girl I used to know.
“You have a problem with beautiful women, Adam? Did some cheerleader ditch you at prom and now you have a vendetta against us all?”
The resemblance Jess shares with Tamara Cutter – the girl responsible for destroying my life ten years ago – is uncanny. And it’s not just their blonde hair and green eyes they have in common, either; their personalities are an exact match. Jess has the same polite but distant way of interacting with people that Tamara had. I’ve witnessed Jess ask dozens of questions, pretending to be interested in a person, yet it’s obvious to me that she’s never invested in the answers she gets. Then there’s the trail of heartbreak Jess has left in her wake.
Alfredo, Jess’s ex-fiancé, seemed like a good man, yet I watched as Jess stared at Logan with lust in her eyes while Alfredo was right next to her, oblivious to her cheating heart.
Even if Kristy is the exception, and she does matter to Jess – and that’s a big if – I know I’m still right about what kind of person Jess is when it comes to everyone else. And thank God for that. If I weren’t so sure that Jess is the same selfish man-user Tamara was, I’d be standing here slack-jawed, gaping at my super-hot neighbour, imagining her naked on top of me, her soft lips on mine and her breasts filling my hands as she rides me like there’s no tomorrow.
Her greeting is polite and cool. Always, Jessica Skyler is the epitome of good manners. And now that we’re attempting “civil”, I’m expecting her to be extra polite and friendly. Except that polite disinterest is the last thing I see when our eyes meet.
No, her eyes are full of something else. Something I’m unable to get a handle on before her gaze cuts to the bottle I’m holding in my hands.
“You brought wine.”
I can’t tell if it’s an accusation or a question, but it sounds more like the former.
I pass the bottle to her. “It’s Kristy’s favourite.”
She takes it and turns around, but I swear I hear her say “no shit,” under her breath. I couldn’t have, though, because I’d be willing to bet my car that she’s never uttered a swear word in her life.
“Aren’t you coming?” she asks, turning back to look at me over her shoulder.
Her voice is polite enough, but her eyes flash as they meet mine, and I’m suddenly certain she’s annoyed with me. Which makes zero sense. I’ve been civil to her since she arrived home. We have a truce. I told her I’d give her the benefit of the doubt. Sure, I plan to dig into any secrets she might have, but she doesn’t know about that yet. So, what’s got her knickers in a twist?
Puzzling over the answer to that question, I shut the door behind me and then follow Jess down the hallway.
“Adam’s here,” Jess announces as she walks into the kitchen. “He brought your favourite wine, K.”
Kristy whips around from the pot she’s just been stirring and rewards me with a mega-wattage smile. “I was just worried we wouldn’t have enough to drink. Seriously, Adam, you’re the best.”
Her words fill me with warmth. And the brush of her lips when she leans in to give me a kiss on my cheek makes me tingle all the way down to my feet.
“Nice one, Granger!” Logan says from beside Kristy, reminding me I’m a disloyal bastard for feeling any tingles. “You saved me a trip to the bottle-o.”
Even if I did want to ask out the beautiful, sexy brunette well before Logan came to his senses and recognised how awesome Kristy is, she’s now permanently off-limits to me now. Logan is happy, finally, after everything he endured when his fiancée died a few years back. I won’t mess with that. I won’t let anyone mess with that.
I look around me to see Jess leaning against a bench in the kitchen. Her expression is thunderous as she looks at me, but then she quickly looks down, attempting to hide her anger from me.
What the hell?
“I’d better go and set the table,” Jess says, avoiding my gaze and moving out of the room.
“Do you guys need a hand with anything?” I ask Logan and Kristy. “If you don’t, I might give Jess a hand setting the table.
The shocked expression on both their faces nearly makes me laugh.
“Okay, thanks,” Kristy says, looking pleased now. “That would be great.”
Kristy is enough of an optimist to believe that Jess and I will be besties if we hang out often enough. Logan isn’t as confident, and he gives me a warning look before I walk out of the kitchen. Days before Jess came home, Logan told me to be nice to Kristy’s friend. Absurdly, I think it might be my being ‘nice’ that has her annoyed.
Jess looks up from setting the first place at the table when I walk into the dining room, irritation flickering across her features before she continues with what she’s doing.
“I came to help,” I tell her.
“Thank you, but I don’t need it,” she says coolly. “It’s not a two-person job.”
“Fine.” I pull out a dining chair, spin it around and straddle it, causing her to look at me.
Now she really looks pissed off, and even though I have no idea why she is, her mood nearly causes me to smile. Does she have any idea she’s trying to kill me with the daggers in her eyes? Gone is the usual ice she gives me; in its place is fire.
Enjoying this side of her I’ve never seen before, I lean in and whisper conspiratorially. “I’ll tell you a secret. I didn’t really come in here to help. I came in to find out what bug has crawled up your arse in the past few hours.”
Her back snaps into a rigid posture, and she crosses her arms and glares at me. “I beg your pardon.”
Her hoity-toity tone makes me want to crack up. “You heard me.”
“No bug has crawled up my…” It’s her turn to whisper now. “Arse.”
It’s like she thinks the word is poisonous as she pushes it past her lips, and I don’t bother trying to hold back my chuckle.
“I was so right about you,” I say. “There’s no way you swore before. You’ve probably never said a swear word before in your life, am I right?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Of course, I have.”
I shake my head. “I don’t believe it.”
Her eyes are practically shooting laser beams through my head. “I’m not a prude, Adam. Of course, I swear. When the occasion calls for it.”
“Prove it. Why don’t you swear? Right here. Right now.”
She shakes her head, going back to setting the table. “I’m not going to swear.”
“Because you don’t know how to.”
“This is a ridiculous conversation.”
I agree wholeheartedly, and yet I’m entertained by it. Seeing Jess like this, it’s like I’m watching an explosive that’s just been lit and I’m waiting for the explosion. My heart is beating faster in anticipation.
“We’re only having this conversation because you won’t tell me why you’re suddenly pissed off,” I remind her.
“I’m not pissed off.”
“Sure, you are. And I think you’ll feel a lot better if you get it off your chest.”
“I don’t need to get it off my chest.”
I grin. “Aha, but you admit there is something on your chest.”
Her jaw is clamped shut so hard; I’m surprised she’s not breaking teeth. “I do not.”
I sigh and stand up, giving her the impression I’m done with the conversation. “You know, when you asked me to give you the benefit of the doubt I thought you were at least going to pretend to be honest with me. But you can’t, can you? You can’t be genuine to save yourself.”
The fork she’s holding clatters to the table. “Just because I’m not going to swear at you or tell you what you want to know doesn’t mean I’m not genuine.”
I shrug. “Genuine implies truthful, and you can’t even admit you’re pissed off.”
“Fine,” she says through gritted teeth. “I’m pissed off. Are you happy now?”
“Nearly. Now just admit that it’s me you’re pissed off with.”
Her glare says she’s on the verge of murdering me. “It’s you I’m pissed off with.”
“Okay, I’m glad we got that out in the open.” I turn around, ready to leave.
“Where are you going?” she asks, her voice full of uncertainty.
I face her again. “I’m going to see if Logan and Kristy need help since you’ve no doubt used up your quota of truth-telling for the day. I’ll try again tomorrow.”
Within seconds she’s across the dining room and standing in front of me, her finger digging into my chest as she glares up at me.
“How dare you patronise me when you are such a …such a hypocrite, Adam Granger.”
I frown. “A hypocrite? Me?”
“Yes, you!” she whisper-hisses. Her gaze darts to the kitchen and then back to me. “You have a thing for Kristy.”
I thought I was prepared for whatever it was that had gotten up Jess’s nose, but she’s surprised me. I guess that explains her change in attitude towards me today. She must have noticed something this morning when Logan and Kristy arrived home. And I guess that also explains her reaction to the wine I brought with me.
Immediately, I start sweating. If Jess has seen something today, then it’s possible Logan and Kristy have too, but Logan already knows I like Kristy. I was never anything but honest about my desire to date Kristy before Logan took up with her. Kristy must even realise by now that I’m keen on her. The only thing I’m guilty of is not being over my attraction to her fast enough. Jess, however, has no idea I was interested in Kristy before Logan was. She’s about to be enlightened.
“I do have a thing for Kristy,” I say, quietly but proudly. “She’s beautiful, but she doesn’t play on it. She’s real, and she can bake like no-one’s business. I was interested in her from the moment I met her. Logan knows I wanted to ask Kristy out from the very start, but I didn’t because he asked me not to.”
I watch as some of the anger fades from her eyes. She doesn’t have a quick response at the ready, no comeback. I’ve taken the wind right out of her sails.
“So…you’re not going to make a move on her now?” she asks uncertainly.
“I will never, ever make a move on Kristy. Even if she and Logan split up, I won’t go there. She might be the most awesome girl I’ve ever met, but she’s Logan’s girl – forever and always in my eyes. I respect their relationship. In fact, I celebrate it.”
“I celebrate it too, Adam. But that never stopped you from accusing me of wanting to interfere in their relationship when that’s something I’d never do. It never stopped you from telling me I think I’m above everyone else, and that I should stay away from my friends.” She’s breathing hard now, and I’m shocked to see emotion fill her gaze once more – this time with something far more unsettling than anger. She shakes her head. “From the beginning of our acquaintance you’ve hated me for something you’re just as guilty of.”
“That’s not why I hate you.”
For a moment, there’s nothing but silence as we stare at each other, and in that silence exactly what I’ve just said to her sinks in all too quickly. Jess’s hand drops to her side, and she takes a step back.
“Then why?” she whispers in a voice that tears through me. “Why do you hate me? What do you see in me that you dislike so much?”
For the first time since I walked into the dining room, demanding answers, I’m at a loss for words. What I’ve just admitted is something I never planned to reveal. Worse still, Jess looks so shocked and so…hurt. I feel as if I’ve been hit in the stomach with a cannonball.
Where has the unemotional ice princess gone? Because I need her back. There isn’t supposed to be anything behind the glossy façade. There certainly isn’t supposed to be this vulnerability I’m witnessing. I thought she wasn’t capable of feeling, yet the raw emotion in her eyes is as real the table we’re setting.
“I don’t hate you,” I amend. “Hate is too strong a word. Really, I don’t care about you at all.”
I swear, that sounded a lot better in my head.
“Besides, my opinion doesn’t mean anything to you, remember?” I say, a hint of desperation creeping into my voice.
I need her to remember that. I need for it to be true. I need her to be unaffected by me. Then maybe, I’ll feel like less of an arsehole for the blow my words dealt her.
“Are you guys nearly done with setting the table?”
Logan is standing in the doorway watching us when I turn around to look at him. I have no idea how long he’s been there for, but even if he hasn’t heard our conversation, he can probably feel the tension in the air. When I look back at Jess, she’s offering Logan a brittle smile. Her expression is a distant cry from the calm and charitable expression she always wears, and I know Logan is going to quiz me later about what happened because he’s blind if he can’t see how upset Jess is right now.
“We’re nearly finished,” she says too-cheerfully, walking away from me and going back to doing what she was doing before I interrupted her.
Our conversation isn’t over. I can’t leave things like this, but I can’t say anything more right now. Not with Logan continuing to stand point-guard in the doorway.
So, I do the only thing I can do at this moment in time – I help Jess finish setting the table.